Problematic Publishing: Red Flags To Watch Out For

Most publishers are in it for the love of books. Yes, even the acquiring editors, the marketing team, and the contract specialists. It’s a labor of love that hopefully breaks even. Some small presses are just smaller versions of the traditional publishers, full-out companies, buying manuscripts and selling books. Some small presses start with a person who self-published and now wants to help writers who want to ‘be published’ get there, without having the learn the ‘self-publishing ropes’ themselves.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some problematic publishing companies out there. Whether you go with traditional publishing or small press, you need to be careful.

8 Red Flags To Watch Out For

1 – Illegitimate “Publishers” or “Agents”

Do your research.

  • Check out their website.
  • How long has the publisher/agency been around? What sort of background does their staff have?
  • What books do they have for sale/have they sold? Do you recognize any of their authors?
  • Are their book acquisitions posted in Publisher’s Weekly?
  • Read one of their books — how well was it edited?
  • What’s the quality of printing?
  • Do they have book covers you’d be proud to have on your book?
  • Ask about their sales for the best AND the worst selling author
  • Question what amount of editing/marketing they do
  • Are they “pay to play” or vanity presses? You give them money, and they’ll publish you? If all you want is to see your manuscript in print and share some copies with friends and family, that’s fine. But, these are typically not seen as “legitimate” publishers.

2 – They Don’t Want You To Shop Around

With agents, most expect you to be querying 3-20 other agents at the same time. It’s normal to ask for up to 2 weeks to follow up with any other agents who may have your full manuscript — or even just cold queries — before deciding on a particular agent.

Different agents and publishers can have different visions for where they see your story fitting into the market, what edits they might think are necessary, and what sort of marketing/etc they think they can get you. Talk to them and explore all your options before committing.

3 – They Want You To Commit To A Contract Before You Read It

Just like you never have a 9-to-5 job until you get that official offer letter, when you open up talks, you’re interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you. At a job interview — or when offered a publishing contract — it can often feel like they’re in control. But, you’re feeling them out just as much as they’re feeling you out, and if it’s not a great fit, then you get to say no.

It’s professional to see what they’re offering and to negotiate. If you can’t agree on terms, it’s professional to walk away — it’s not a breach of contract and it’s not “leading them on”. It’s part of the business.

Not everyone has the same vision, and that’s okay. The manuscript is yours, and you get the final say in who you sign with.

4 – They Want All the Rights!

Sure, you want to sell you English-language rights, your foreign language rights, your audio book rights, get optioned for tv or movies… But only if they’re actually going to do something with them.

(Well, okay. You can get some bank from tv or movie options that never go anywhere.)

But, if the publisher isn’t planning to make an audiobook or publish you overseas, they don’t need those rights, you can sell them to someone else. You don’t want them just locked up, sitting there, not making you money.

5 – They Keep the Rights in Perpetuity!

Nope. The rights always revert to you. Usually in 6 months to 2 years for short stories and 3-7 years with novels. Note: the 7 years only starting to become more common when Amazon’s Audible decided that was their default for audiobook rights.

6 – You Have to Pay Back the Advance If Your Book Doesn’t Sell

Nope. If you are lucky enough to get an advance, that’s awesome. And it’s yours.

For the fortunate few who get one, it’s usually under $50,000 spread over 2-3 years. If it’s more than that, it’s making publishing news headlines.

Now, if you don’t “earn out” — ie. make the value of your advance plus expenses — getting another advance is going to be a lot harder for your future works. But. You don’t owe them money back.

Plus, if you do earn out, or for those just getting royalty share, the standard is 8-10% of the price of a physical book, or up to 25% for e-books. Although, your agent gets their portion out of your share.

7 – Publisher Says You Don’t Need An Agent / The Agent Just Wants Easy Money Off Your Work

Legitimate publishers usually are happy for you to have an agent. A good agent is experienced with book contracts and knows what’s reasonable to ask for and what rights to pay attention to. When you have an agent, the publisher doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits later claiming you didn’t know what you were signing.

Now, if you want a lawyer instead, be careful to get one familiar with the publishing industry, so they know what to ask for and what’s acceptable. Some authors have made names for themselves — trying to copyright or trademark common genre tropes or euphemisms. Most of those authors have not made good names, or good reputations within the publishing community.

If you have a publishing contract in hand, but don’t have an agent, you can usually query a few agent, with the subject “Publishing Offer In Hand” or something of that nature, and one will likely offer represent you. It’s quick money for them, and I might expect they’d be fine with a smaller percentage than usual, since they’re taking on a lot less risk. (Am I wrong? Let me know.)

8 – You Know All Their Juicy Gossip From Their Socials

I want an agent or publishing company that’s known for their books, and their advice columns or book launches. I’m okay with an insider peek at the trials and tribulations of the publishing industry.

But. I expect them to be professional about it. No naming names unless someone has done something egregious and they can’t come to terms with the offender.

I understand some people are petty and are going to 1-star review books because Amazon didn’t deliver the chocolate truffles they’d ordered instead. Not all customers or even all authors act like professionals online. But, I want my publisher and my agent to be professionals.

Now, some people stand out because of birth or identity, some for the causes they support. But, if someone is always stepping over the line with them for stuff other than identity or declared beliefs, at some point, you start to wonder why things always escalate around them.

A good publisher or agent sets up clear communication guidelines, gives you updates/check-ins as expected, and has more good press than bad.


Have you run into problematic publishing companies?
Are there any red flags to watch out for that I’ve missed?
Got any horror stories you need to let out?

Morgan Hazelwood's "Writing Tips & Writerly Musings"
Problematic Publishing: Red Flags to Watch Out For.

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